Cleveland Indians taking a Tampa Bay Rays roster approach

A sign for the Cleveland Guardians Executive Offices (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
A sign for the Cleveland Guardians Executive Offices (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /
Chris Antonetti, Cleveland Indians
LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 17: Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti looks on before an exhibition game between the Indians and the Chicago Cubs at Cashman Field on March 17, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David J. Becker/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Indians offseason is underway, and thus far the direction is clear. Slash payroll. This doesn’t mean lower expectations, but it is a signal of restructuring it’s foundation.

In almost all sports the phrase, “It’s a copycat league” is used to explain how teams manage and perform. Baseball is a slow evolution, but copycats exist. Most recently it was the big market teams learning from the low payroll Oakland A’s, and now ‘moneyball’ in some form is used by all clubs.

The Cleveland Indians are changing how they do business. The new roster building style has been expedited by the pandemic, but over the past two seasons the trend of slashing payroll and filling in with very cheap veterans has been the new style. The Cleveland Indians appear to be learning from the blueprint of the Tampa Bay Rays. There is the Kevin Cash connection, but after not winning a championship by spending more money, the Indians are trying a new approach to building its opening day rosters.

As of right now the Cleveland Indians have a payroll nestled comfortably ranking 27th in Major League Baseball, right below the Tampa Bay Rays, but above the Pittsburgh Pirates. What’s not included yet is Francisco Lindor’s $20+ million contract if he stays, but all indications are he will be traded this offseason.

Let’s ask a rhetorical question, does seeing the Indians mass slash of contracts lower your expectations for the team in 2021? The answer, is probably ‘yes’. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Yes, the Indians are in the company of the Pirates, Orioles, Marlins, Rays, but half of those teams made the playoffs last season.

Since 2019 those four teams have dominated the art of not spending on their payroll, and have been the bottom four MLB spenders. Indications appear for the Indians to join them in 2021. Unlike the Orioles and Pirates who have stated their rebuilding efforts, the Indians have used a ‘restructuring’ explanation. Explaining they have every intention to remain in playoff contention.

As fans view the likes of Carlos Santana, David Dahl, and Hunter Renfroe sign for what appear to be VERY affordable rates on other teams, as the Indians are giving up, it may not have to be. The formula from Tampa is to let these players sign elsewhere if you have a high prospect at the position in your Triple-A level. The Indians have that where they’ve let veterans leave the organization.

This may not be fun as fans to see strong foundational pieces consistently leave, but its a new approach to winning.

The Indians increased their payroll during their run leading up to the 2020 season, but did they win the World Series? No. They had that one magical run when injuries forced them to ride hot pitchers, but other than that season they haven’t put up much of a fight in the playoffs. The Rays have.

The Rays have made the playoffs in the last two seasons, and missed the 2018 playoffs, but still won 90 games.

The Rays have one of the best rotations and bullpens in baseball. The Indians have already established themselves as holding that same strength. AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber is a premium for the Indians, and anchors a rotation with fellow pre-arbitration pitchers. Only Carlos Carrasco is not a post-arbitration starting pitcher. The Indians minor league and scouting systems, have proven to be sustainable in developing high end MLB pitching from within.

This is the reason we shouldn’t be surprised to see Carlos Carrasco in trade rumors to cut more money. There is value in his experience and affordability, but the Indians will look and see a rotation with Bieber at the helm and see what they can get in return for Carrasco.

Comparing to the Rays, who have just two starting pitchers that are past pre-arbitration, the Indians are setting their foundation to follow Tampa’s blueprint.

The Rays currently only have three players under contract for veteran deals, and after moving on from Carlos Santana the Indians are down to three as well, being Jose Ramirez, Roberto Perez, and Carrasco. Both teams will let free agency move and scoop up bargain veterans to add depth so these numbers will rise before opening day.

The wildcard in this plan for Cleveland is that the Rays appear to have more success in developing offensive pieces from within. They aren’t great at it, but they find just enough in their own system to compete and win games with strong pitching and defense.

Can the Indians do this? They can, but now you will need to see growth from high performing Triple A pieces like Bobby Bradley, Nolan Jones, and Daniel Johnson. Opening the MLB roster to allow these pieces to get the at-bats is part of the solution, but they have to deliver at the right spots when they get to Cleveland.

Terry Francona will play small ball and find creative ways to manufacture runs, but at times the Indians offense has just gotten inept for large stretches. For this new approach to work, the Indians will need to find a consistent offense that they can work with regardless of opposing pitchers.

Do you agree the Indians should look to Tampa for roster makeup lessons? Can the Indians adapt this approach and eventually spend more to move ahead of the Rays and others?

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